Still in her teens in 1920, Lily Valance is embarking on a promising stage career as a singer. She is exceptionally beautiful and captivates Capt. Stephen Winters at first sight. Stephen, a decorated hero, is handsome and elegant; his scars are not visible but affect him nevertheless, as manifested by horrible nightmares. Lily fits his vision of the perfect wife and he has decided that with a little time her love will banish his nightmares. He views himself as the perfect husband—naturally superior, a good provider, wealthy, and socially prominent. Lily will have everything that any woman could want, but Lily wants only to succeed in her career. At seventeen, she is dependent on her mother to make all her decisions and would never have married Stephen if her mother had not died. It is Charlie Smith, her accompanist, whom she loves. While Charlie returns Lily’s love, he is incapable of making love to any woman, due to a war wound, so Lily remains only his protégé.
In Stephen Winters, Philippa Gregory has created a difficult, complex, and deeply disturbed sociopath. She shows how Stephen’s experiences in the trenches in World War I affected his mind, but also how they were seeded by his loveless childhood. Lily is no better than she should be with one foot in her recent working class girlhood and the other in the snobbish upper-class drawing room of Stephen’s family. As husband and wife, Stephen and Lily Winters compare easily to Soames and Irene Forsyte. Both men concentrate entirely on appearances, material advantages, and the façade of social acceptability, while their wives love other men who know how to make a woman feel loved.